Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Gertrude Opera serves a Triple Treat in a perky and entertaining romp

Surviving on the lowest of budgets, Gertrude Opera makes smart and efficient choices in the delivery of good quality work, often with neglected pieces that larger companies might eschew. Three rarely performed one-act operas spanning three centuries in a two-hour evening featuring eight young singers tucked away in an intimate performance space in North Melbourne - arriving at this Triple Treat feels like a clandestine gathering of sorts. It turns out to be all very harmless and entertaining.

All sung in English starting with Salieri's Prima la musica, poi le parole (1786), followed by Menotti's The Telephone (1947) and concluding with Ravel's Le Docteur Miracle (1857), what links these historically isolated works is their ludicrous comic charm and farcical bite. That's not to say that they don't zoom in on the complexity and tensions of human relationships, something these developing singers handled commendably.

Darcy Carroll as The Composer and Bethany Hill as Tonina
And though seemingly disparate in musical style, all three are connected by a delightful perkiness that music director Brian Castles-Onion conveyed expertly on piano. A small band might be asking too much but there were times when that's exactly what the ear wanted, so as to texturise and shape the music and provide greater warmth for the voices.

Salieri's Prima la musica, poi le parole (First the music, then the words) sets up the evening admirably, a short work concerned with artistic frictions between a composer, poet and two singers after the commission of an opera. Directed with vitality and cheek by Jeremy Stanford, the space bloomed with larger-than-life spiritedness. Mezzo-soprano Allegra Giagu shook the room in sumptuous and dominant style as the elegant haughty diva, Eleonora, making her grand audition a hilarious highlight as she sings of maternal love, clutching her 'required boys' for the aria, first to bosom, then to groin.

Her boys are none other than the Composer, Darcy Carroll, and Poet, Josh Erdelyi-Gotz, both of whom are sorting out their own argument in bursts of prankish charm. Carroll does an excellent job with his firm and smoky bass-baritone alongside Erdelyi-Gotz who sports an appealing light baritone but which loses clarity at the top.

Bright soprano Bethany Hill's exaggerated and frenetic portrayal of the poet's zany girlfriend Tonina, who also wants a lead, comes at the expense of timing and fluidity but that all changed when she took to Menotti's The Telephone as Lucy in a strong and vivid performance. It all ends smoothly as each of the characters settle into there place and in which the final ensemble comes together in well-harmonised voice.

The sketched succinctness and power that The Telephone's story tells is both affecting and comic and to which director Greta Nash neatly gives focus to. Ben is desperately trying to propose to Lucy before he departs on a trip but Lucy's addiction to her phone prevents the question being asked. Menotti's tricky but melodious score is a gem for which Carroll reconvenes with Hill in a sensitive and insightful interpretation that replaces the 1940s telephone with a smartphone and its original domestic setting for a table at a fine restaurant. Its construct is all too relevant today as the battle between technology and face-to-face socialisation impacts all of us.

Darcy Carroll as Ben and Bethany Hill as Lucy in The Telephone
On piano, Castles-Onion inserts a smartphone ringtone, Carroll makes a guy look like a doormat most convincingly (again bringing quality and emotion to the table in voice) and Hill's sparkling performance as the characterful and self-absorbed Lucy is a hoot. On each call she is on, the score's mood and style shift and, with it, Hill's versatility and confidence compliments them gorgeously. Ben finally gets to propose after his departure has virtually gone unnoticed. It works a treat on FaceTime.

At around 50 minutes and the longest of the works, Ravel's Doctor Miracle, is a quirky story based on commedia dell'arte principles. A young lass is forbidden by her father (the mayor), to marry a man of the military but her soldier lover manages to outsmart him through disguise, first in gaining access to the household as the hired servant Pasquin, then as the quack, Dr Miracle, who is called to the house after the mayor believes himself to be poisoned after being served a foul omelette by Pasquin.

Once again, director Jeremy Stanford infuses the plot with energy and interest, this time adding loads of cheesiness that also goes appropriately into making the opera's famous "Omelette quartet" the absurdity it is. Then again, French cuisine is to be venerated. There's a little trepidation on the part of the cast, whose timing could be sharpened, and diction is sometimes fuzzy, but the comic flavour nonetheless cuts through on this rather over-egged and frothy romp.

From dressing gown to dressed up, sweet soprano Juliet Dufour bounces about with soubrettish delight as the young lass, Laurette, her lyric polish beautifying the pre-omelette quartet deliciously in her romantic aria, "Do not scold me for it". As her lover Silvio, warm tenor Hew Wagner took to disguise more successfully as the slovenly, buffoon-like Pasquin than the creepy, warlock-like Dr Miracle. Bass-baritone Henry Shaw cleverly paces his performance from stiff pomposity to blood vessel-bursting rage as the Mayor and sings with skilful fluidity and staunchness throughout his range. As Veronique, his gold-digging wife and Laurette's step-mother, soprano Lisa Parker is dressed to impress with champagne in hand at breakfast and sings with pleasing richness.

After the shining ensemble finale and the enthusiastic applause for the evening's complete cast, what wasn't expected was a further show of singing when a "Happy Birthday to You" was sung to Allegra Giagu. They did a fine job of that too.

Gertrude Opera
130 Dryburgh Street, North Melbourne
Until 20th September

Production Photographs: courtesy of Gertrude Opera

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Maximised melodrama and touching poeticism - a delightfully sung Così fan tutte at Dubai Opera

Premiered just short of two years before his death in 1791, the delightful vitality and arabesque beauty that features in the music of Mozart's two-act opera buffa, Così fan tutte, never ceases to work its charm. Neither does its fanciful story, in which women's fidelity is wagered on and mercilessly tested via a game of deception in the course of a day that goes awry. I've never thought of it as being a particularly savoury work to take a sweetheart on a date to but, as the opera's subtitle, La scuola degli amanti (The School for Lovers), implies, there are lessons to be learned along the way as part of the natural desire to accept love into our hearts.

Soloists of Teatro di San Carlo's production of Così fan tutte at Dubai Opera
Here, in a new specially commissioned production from Naples' Teatro di San Carlo and presented by Dubai Opera as part of the trio of Mozart works in which the composer collaborated with the prodigious librettist Lorenzo da Ponte, director Mariano Bauduin maximises the melodrama while infusing it with the touching poeticism the work contains. In it, the complexity of love is no less diminished by farce and fantasy.

One of the more effective aspects of Bauduin's direction is in how he 'releases' a character from the action during more introspective arias, allowing greater focus on the singing and text while keeping surrounding action gently moving along.

On centre stage, a three-sided latticed garden folly that houses a large marble statue sits on a small revolve in front of which their accompanying spaces provide just a marginal sense of scenic difference. In the background, a stepped area on either side allows for some useful ancillary action but, as a platform for chorus work, it more or less makes them feel disconnected, even redundant. It all overlooks, from on high, a painterly coastal backdrop that makes the arrival of a floral-adorned, gondola-like craft behind the little latticed folly look rather preposterous. Nicola Rubertelli's set design, as pretty as it first looks, begins to tire by opera's end, despite all sorts of dramatic lighting changes thrown on it.

Giusi Giustino's late 19th century fresh, frilled Neapolitan and exotic "Albanian" costumes colour the setting in a pantomime-like diversion but the night didn't go by without a bench being knocked over, the statue almost toppling and almost every footstep on stage noisily getting in the way. Perhaps Bouduin was aiming at the work's sticky, unsettling nature and the frailty of commitment in this prettily contrived picture.

Fortunately, Bauduin is aided by a cast who sing pleasingly in Italian and act marvellously to the beat of each other, singing with especially refined subtlety and appeal in swathes of delicious ensemble work. The experience is assisted with English and Arabic surtitles.

If one is to be elevated above the others, it would be soprano Karen Gardeazabal's well-phrased and lush-voiced Fiordiligi. Vocally, Gardeazabal displays consistent directness and purity, her Act 2 aria "Per pietà, ben mio, perdona", a performance highlight. In it, Fiordiligi has paired off with the disguised Ferrando and Gardeazabal sings with fullness of expression and shading, divulging her heart's dilemma and guilt at entertaining another man while her lover, Guglielmo, is away (he is having better success at wooing Dorabella).

Nao Yokomae, Karen Gardeazabal and Chiara Tirotta
Alongside Gardeazabal, the firmly buttressed and velvety mezzo-soprano Chiara Tirotta is perfectly placed as Fiordiligi's sister, Dorabella, with the pair offering absorbing, precision-timed interpretations in their duets, something their lovers, Maharram Huseynov's Guglielmo and Francisco Brito's Ferrando, couldn't always reliably capture.

Brito's youthful agility and primed slapstick behaviour provide many comic moments but he takes a serious and pensive approach when needed, giving Act 1's  aria, "Un’ Aura Amorosa",  a warm and radiant lyricism as he prematurely smells victory in his sight and praises his lover, Dorabella. Huseynov gives ample bravado in character and a robust and burnished baritone to Guglielmo.

As the sisters' lowly but world-wise housemaid Despina, bright soprano Nao Yokomae lights up the stage with her ebullient and cheeky, pocket-rocket performance while forcing through a delightful coarseness in tone, though sometimes at the expense of phrasing. Handsome-toned and more secure in the lower and middle range, bass Abramo Rosalen entertains marvellously as a colourfully costumed and dandyish Don Alfonso. The chorus of soldiers and townsfolk enter and perform with lukewarm results.

A wondrous sound, however, emanated from the pit where beautiful and markedly delicate orchestral textures were created courtesy of Andrea Albertin's sensitive conducting. Notably, the percussion's patina integrated excellently as did the woodwind's mellowness. The orchestra of the Teatro San Carlo played with glowing  expertise.

When the final ensemble applaud the ability to accept the good with the bad, sung silhouetted in the fore stage with the revolve on a continuous turn, chandeliers moving up and down and the gondola moving back and forward, the shenanigans are done but the topsy-turvy ride love gives feels far from over. A cute finishing touch!

Così fan tutte
Dubai Opera
Performed by Teatro di San Carlo
Until 15th September

Production Photographs: Courtesy of Dubai Opera

Monday, September 11, 2017

Mozart in leather and chains - Emotionworks Cut Opera's wild and cleverly devised Don Giovanni


Published online at Melbourne's Herald Sun 11th September 2017 and in print 12th September. 

Death literally comes knocking at the door in Mozart’s dark blend of the serious and comic in one of opera’s everlasting cornerstones, Don Giovanni. Expect to be surprised.

Michael Lampard as Don Giovanni
Emotionworks Cut Opera cut and splice to create their own unique blend, this time fusing the likes of Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, Alice Cooper, Eurythmics and Queen alongside a well-represented chunk of some of the most recognisable arias and ensembles from the opera.

Inventively devised by Julie Edwardson, the two-hour show is buoyed by more than 20 well-interpreted popular snippets and a terrific expletive-laden English adaptation, despite the comedy being mostly knockabout and the work’s operatic base unevenly polished. More than anything, Edwardson’s formula demands vocal adaptability to smoothen the storytelling — something only half the cast achieves.

But the story of the arrogant, licentious and murderous nobleman, whose evildoing spells his demise, is transposed wildly and cleverly from 18th century Spain to an Australian rock festival at which Don Giovanni (Michael Lampard), rock legend, is the headline act.

All other original roles slip effortlessly into Edwardson’s scheme — including band manager, Leporello (Peter Hanway), support act, Ottavio (Patrick Macdevitt), band guitarist, Masetto, (Richard Woods) and Commendatore (Wayne Cuebass), the murdered band drummer whose ghost returns with a vengeance to drive Don Giovanni into hell.

Lampard dynamically captures the virile, fierce and self-entitled legend, his solid baritone straddling both sides of music comfortably, a highlight being his more bourbon-fuelled Act 1 Champagne Aria mixed with J.J. Cale’s dazed Cocaine.

Kate Bright as Elvira and Peter Hanway as Leporello
Macdevitt gets the festival off to a sound start as the supporting act with Bob Dylan’s Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door and equally succeeds in bridging musical extremes, as does Kate Bright’s foxy Elvira (festival act and Don Giovanni’s former girlfriend), who opens with a warm version of Pat Benatar’s Love Is a Battlefield, then impresses with her rich operatic mezzosoprano. Katrina Waters works a treat as Ottavio’s histrionic girlfriend Anna and Katy Turbitt makes a sweet “little pony” as Masetto’s girlfriend Zerlina. Leporello, Masetto and Commendatore are more accomplished and in tune as rock singers and musicians than opera artists.

The small band, including Edwardson on keyboard, Woods on guitar and Cuebas on drums pumps the pace smashingly and Brunswick’s grungy, wall-art heavy Rubix Warehouse supplies the perfect backdrop that sound and lighting designer Mattieu Delepau overlays with effective concert atmosphere.

Leather and chains, rugged guys and headstrong gals, drugs, alcohol and a messy trail of sexual abuse — it’s all in the mix. And when Leporello says he’s off for a drink at the bar after Don Giovanni’s off his hands, followed by an excellently harmonised Bohemian Rhapsody, you’ll probably want to join him.

Emotionworks Cut Opera
Rubix Warehouse
63 Phoenix Street, Brunswick
Until 24th September


Production Photos: Phil Thomson

Monday, August 21, 2017

Well-tuned dramatic intent accompanies BK Opera's simple but effective La Traviata

Simple but effective, with a few notable performances, although not without issue, the heart of Verdi's La Traviata remains in place in BK Opera's latest production.

BK Opera chorus, La Traviata
A woman's portrait shaped by soft-coloured camellias forms the centrepiece of the company's sharp-looking promotional material, an idea that no doubt stems from the source of Verdi's popular mid-period work, Alexandre Dumas' 1848 novel, La Dame aux Camélias or The Lady of the Camillias. They also come incorporated into director Kate Millet's work as back-wall projections as part of a range of flowers in a botanical parade of time-lapse photography of blossoming beauty. They're succulent and sexual but they don't strike with theatrical impact in the small display field they are allotted below the prominent English surtitles.

There are no shortage of clever ideas brought to the table in an overall vision that balances the background of gaiety and an accumulation of fateful circumstances that envelop Violetta Valéry's world but some are not resolved in a way that enhance the audience's experience. The large space of the arch-ceilinged Reid Street Auditorium is pleasantly serviceable for the cast of young singers but the results are mixed with the audience seating placed perpendicular to a small open stage area facing a central aisle where some of the action occurs.

In a fine start, Act 1 opens with a small, lively ensemble of bunny-eared sex kittens ready to party at Violetta's salon in every which well-choreographed raunchy way. In their see-through light silken ivory outfits, the feel is 1940s, attractive alongside the attending men in black and white formals. Together, they do decent work of setting a scene of debauchery and harmonising richly in voice.

Rada Tochalna as Violetta
The aisle works a close-up treat for Act 2's encounter between Violetta, a radiant Rada Tochalna who lays out a beautifully paced interpretation and breezes firmly through ornamentations, and Giorgio Germont, a role well considered in portraying him as Alfredo's brother and who Josh Erdelyi-Gotz brought warmth, forthrightness and emotional weight. But the effect was compromised by lighting that the audience's eyes take a direct hit from.

Violetta's bedroom, scene of Act 3, starts well enough on the stage, though wasn't there something more than a hall chair that Violetta could sit ill and dying on? Tochalna made the most of it as the confidence and drama in her performance took a further leap but the final tragedy is played out sprawled on the aisle floor, blocked from view. Had the area been raised, the desired effect could have been delivered more effectively for a dying Violetta being nursed by a distraught Alfredo, who Patrick MacDevitt brought bull-at-a-gate temperament and a jealous streak to but tended to push vocal warmth through an overwhelming roaring forte in the top range with it.

In smaller roles that include Beth Paterson's pasty-gothic Flora and Stephen Carolane's upbeat Gastone, Finn Gilheany makes the biggest impression with his warm and burnished-voiced Barone Douphol. The role of Violetta's maid, Annina, is doubled and delivered with sweet humility by Alicia Groves and Lara Vosciano. Dottore Grenvil is, positively why not, a female doctor - for this, luscious and creamy mezzo soprano Lisa Lally elevated a minor role memorably after her solid contribution as part of the chorus.

Music comes supplied by a string quartet, at their best in a soul-searching rendition of Act 3's opening aching lament but a tad more fine-grained work was required for the overall night. Pam Christie does an expert job at piano and, taking lead, conductor James Penn exercised attentiveness in giving the tempi effectual variations. The music's separation from the main stage area on the opposite side of the hall, however, seems to take something away from Verdi's powerful and sumptuous score.

Diving into the deep end, BK Opera are providing valuable performance experience as a platform for young singers. Now with three productions to their credit, the signs of well-tuned concepts and dramatic intent are evident but some nutting out in bringing this to the audience would reap further benefits.

BK Opera
75 Reid Street Auditorium, North Fitzroy
Until 26th August

Production Photos: Third Life Photography

Friday, August 11, 2017

When world class is ordained magnificently so - Opera Australia's Parsifal in concert at Sydney Opera House

Two elements of Opera Australia's much-anticipated performance of Richard Wagner's Parsifal might not go down too well with the composer, who conceived opera as Gesamtkunstwerk - a complete work of art - a fusion of music, voice, drama, setting and design. Firstly, the nuts and bolts of a fully staged production were forgone for a concert presentation in the Sydney Opera House Concert Hall (the originally intended home for opera in the larger shelled section of the venue). Secondly, conductor Pinchas Steinberg's Israel-born status brings to mind the composer's rejection of the German-born Jewish court conductor at the Munich Opera, Hermann Levi, presiding at the work's Bayreuth premiere in 1882. To King Ludwig, who sponsored the opera, Wagner had expressed alleged dissatisfaction in having a Jew conduct "this most Christian of works". 

M. Honeyman, K. Youn, J. Kaufmann, P. Steinberg and M. DeYoung
Wagner lost on the second account in Bayreuth where Levi took the baton. On the first account, 135 years later, Wagner would hopefully be proud of Opera Australia's world class concert interpretation directed by Hugh Halliday and Steinberg's patient approach and graphic musical rendering.

With over four hours of time-distorting music drama - what Wagner described as "Ein Bühnenweihfestspiel" ("A Festival Play for the Consecration of the Stage") - the Opera Australia Orchestra nudging 100 untiring musicians, 16 passionate soloists and an 80-strong chorus, the story of the unassuming and ignorant Parsifal, who is destined to become the saviour of the Grail Knights, is enacted with heartfelt commitment, captivating detail and deep respectfulness. 

Amongst them all, in the title role and a certain drawcard who the world wants to brand its greatest tenor, Jonas Kaufmann brought his trademark, deliciously handsome, intense and warmly burnished sound to one of opera's most humble characters. Kaufmann, depicting Parsifal's youthful unease in the dignified attire of tuxedo, sensitively championed Parsifal's humility and subsequent enlightenment and compassion. With the backing of experience in the role, Kaufmann's smooth effortlessness, complex depth and grip on the text made an edifying performance as his pensiveness took on the demeanour of a man who knows not how to relate to his world. The star tenor didn't disappoint.

Pinchas Steinberg, Michelle DeYoung, Simon King and Michael Honeyman
American mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung, who tantalised Melbourne audiences in excerpts of Parsifal's blustery Act II alongside Stuart Skelton last year with the MSO, dug deep into her role as Kundry, the wild woman and seductress of the knights. Broad in range, from cavernous drumming lows to a full-bodied middle and topped with mighty chilling lighting strikes of the voice, DeYoung delivered the complete multi-dimensional package, not without a dismissive smugness of expression that comes with her character's tormented and exiled soul. 

But if Kaufmann was the drawcard, Korean bass Kwanchul Youn was the evening's firm foundation as the veteran Knight of the Grail, Gurnemanz. Straight shouldered and planted with commanding confidence, Youn embodied the wisdom of the sage and charisma of an orator with his thrilling, intoxicatingly well-enunciated declamatory delivery, shades of warmth and seemingly infinite reserves of power from subterranean lows to billowing highs.

Australian baritone Michael Honeyman moves from strength to strength with every role he tackles and continues to impress in Wagnerian territory. Honeyman's role debut as Amfortas was accompanied with soul-searching gravitas, golden-edged resonance and purity in depicting the ruler of the Grail kingdom, aggravated by guilt and suffering in pain, his wandering, at times fixed, wide-eyed gaze full of inner anguish.

Pinchas Steinberg and Jonas Kaufmann
As the magician Klingsor, who was expelled by the Grail knights for his impure desires and established himself in the valley outside Montsalvat, Warwick Fyfe brought his unique combination of vocal and performance style to his villainous character (with Vincent Price coming to mind) in a magnificent display. With powerfully heated stentorian might, as if delivered from a smelter within, the energy that Fyfe delivered came skilfully forged and phrased, adding further weight to the heights he can reach after his excellent Alberich in Opera Australia's Ring. 

Smaller roles were filled marvellously by a strong contingent of local regulars at Opera Australia with David Parkin well-grounded and resonant as Amfortas' father, Titurel and Eva Kong with Anna Dowsley opening eloquently as the First and Second Esquire before joining Stacey Alleaume, Jane Ede, Julie Lea Goodwin and Dominica Matthews, who, as the six Flower Maidens, harmonised gorgeously. Graeme Macfarlane, Simon Kim, Dean Bassett and Alexander Hargreaves made great work of the Third and Fourth Esquire and First and Second Knight respectively, with Hargreaves having a particularly secure and appealing baritone. 

Back of stage, when the Opera Australia Chorus of knights and flower maidens took to their feet, they sang with beautifully structured layering and superb gradations in volume, the men especially moving with their thrilling crescendos. A fine silken beauty shone through the 20 children in their midst.

Most attentive to drawing the soloists into to the music, Steinberg kept a firm hand on what were buoyant and invitingly paced results. Each of the Vorspiel and orchestral interludes, in particular, demonstrated the refined musicianship and the score's wide-reaching colours.

It all came presented pleasingly with Halliday making sensible choices for the comings and goings of the soloists and John Rayment's subtle lighting that, in the final moments, tinged the acoustic discs above the stage in red as the Grail is 'unveiled'. 

While the Opera Australia 2017 Sydney season was looking thin while renovations are currently in progress at the Opera House Theatre, the company have, nonetheless, made a successful step onto the Concert Hall stage which won't be forgotten. 

Opera Australia 
Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House 
Until 14th August

Production Photos: Keith Saunders

Monday, August 7, 2017

Melbourne Opera's Lohengrin radiates gloriously in its mysterious medieval vision: Herald Sun Review


Published online at Herald Sun 8th August and in print 9th August, 2017

With its riveting drama, glorious music, radiant voices and its mysterious medieval vision, Melbourne Opera adds a crown to its credentials with its new production of Richard Wagner’s sprawling romantic work, Lohengrin.

For a composer who created some of the most monumental works of the repertoire and who envisioned and had constructed an opera house exemplifying his ideals, there is no surprise that he dictated all aspects of production scrupulously.

Marius Vlad as Lohengrin with Melbourne Opera Chorus
Now almost 170 years since it premiered in 1850, the work beams under Suzanne Chaundy’s subtle and effective direction in an interpretation that is clearly suggestive of its intended 10th century Germanic setting.

Realism and fantasy collide on a background of impending battle in which Elsa of Brabant is wrongly accused of her brother’s murder. Sailing in on a swan (deftly staged with magical projections in a rain of mist), an enigmatic knight arrives to defend her honour, precipitating a marriage with the caveat that Elsa is never to question his identity. A big ask! And, just as there are no guarantees of victory in war, there are no guarantees of doubtlessness in love. When seeds of doubt are planted, Lohengrin becomes a dramatic essay on the attack of faith by reason.

In an extraordinary wash of rich colour and atmosphere from Chaundy’s all female creative team — Christina Logan-Bell (sets), Lucy Wilkins (costumes), Lucy Birkinshaw (lighting) and Yandell Walton (video designs) — Lohengrin pulsates as much visually as it does musically (bar a tentative start on opening night) under conductor David Kram’s splendidly measured tempos and the 70-piece MO Orchestra. Rallying clarion trumpet fanfares from the side balconies add an especially spectacular dynamic.

On a sculptured run of steps under a changing sky that reflects the mystery, menace and jubilation of the narrative, the cast delivered quality from top to bottom.

Helena Dix as Elsa and Marius Vlad as Lohengrin
Wagnerian tenor Marius Vlad imparts calm and charisma in the taxing titular role as a gallant and near-saintly Lohengrin, his featherlight vibrato touching the air in a range of easy command and steadiness.

Making a formidable long-awaited return home to Melbourne, soprano Helena Dix confirmed her expertise in a captivating and tenderly calibrated vocal rendition of the innocent Elsa, her deep reserves of power gem-cut and pure.

On the dark side, Icelandic heldenbaritone Hrólfur Sæmundsson’s imposing and agitated Telramund is a vocally percolating spitfire, matching the evil and crazed Ortrud who mezzosoprano Sarah Sweeting conjures with magnificent, threateningly carved and luscious-voiced cunningness.

As King Henry the Fowler, gravelly bass and familiar figure at MO, Eddie Muliaumaseali’i presides with confident, balanced authority in what points to a grand career highlight and baritone Phillip Calcagno impresses with unwavering resonant muscularity as his Herald.

Guided by Raymond Lawrence, the vivid, undulating immensity of the 60-strong MO Chorus contribute markedly to the many tableaus and are directed with increasingly detailed action as the drama progresses.

Chaundy’s Lohengrin addresses conflict, doubt and vulnerability sublimely on a scale of love and war. On a scale of should I or shouldn’t I, no procrastination necessary. Simply go!

Melbourne Opera

Regent Theatre, until 12th August

Robert Blackwood Hall, Monash University, 19 August

4.5 stars

Production Photos: Robin Halls

Thursday, July 20, 2017

An edgy, intelligent and dramatically well-paced Poppea from Lyric Opera of Melbourne: Herald Sun Review


Published online at Herald Sun 17th July and in print 18th July 2017.

Back in the mid 17th century, Claudio Monteverdi was writing musical dramas before the word opera was coined to describe them. As opera in its infancy, his final such work, The Coronation of Poppea, is a masterpiece of mature dramatic clout that, in this 450th anniversary of his birth, surges to life in Lyric Opera of Melbourne’s outstanding new production.

Rebecca Rashleigh as Poppea and Nicholas Jones as Nero
Director Tyran Parke’s fine credentials are put to the test in an opera directorial debut that delivers an edgy, intelligent and dramatically well-paced entertaining treasure.

Monteverdi’s sensational account of the Roman emperor Nero’s (Nicholas Jones) blinkered pursuit of love for his mistress Poppea (Rebecca Rashleigh), her ambitions of power and the Empress Ottavia (Caroline Vercoe) gravely aware of the vulnerability of her position, is the basis on which moral compasses on all fronts break down. Threaded through, the goddesses of Fortune, Virtue and Love, are having a cat fight of their own for supremacy.

In the spirit of a Venetian Carnivale, or simply the everyday, Virtue (Hew Wagner) and Fortune (Robert Macfarlane) open proceedings outrageously as two drunken and dishevelled drag queens with Love (Alison Lemoh) spying from above. After this eyebrow-raising start — spicy fodder for the salaciousness and depravity that ensues — superbly depicted character interactions accompanied by quality singing culminate in Nero and Poppea singing a heavenly love duet that comes with its own sense of irony.

Planted firmly on the poetry of the text, Parke’s inventiveness is replicated by design (Dann Barber, Rob Sowinski and Bryn Cullen) that brims with sophistication. Time appears fluid but a beautifully tailored 1950s-like aesthetic peers comfortably through more classical details, centred around a versatile imposing pedimented armoire that conceals Nero and Poppea’s bed. The effect is fresh and modern with the sense that Ancient Rome is just as palpably present.

Caroline Vercoe as Ottavia
Coalescing deliciously with the drama, Monteverdi’s music (though it’s not entirely his) trickles and wafts divinely with sympathetic support for the performers from a small ensemble conducted from keyboard by Pat Miller.

As cute as a kitten and calculating with her feline charm and intrigue, Rashleigh is radiant as the plotting Poppea. Exuding suaveness and authority, Jones’ dynamic-voiced Nero is a superb compliment to Poppea. Vocally rich and darkly hued, Vercoe’s touching expressivity is a standout as the rejected Ottavia. Nicholas Tolputt meets countertenor demands with polish as the murderously manipulated Ottone, Elizabeth Stannard-Cohen makes a shining beacon of Drusilla, Damian Whiteley’s philosophising and suicide-forced Seneca comes with stamina and conviction and Bernard Leon shows his vocal chops as a sinisterly lurking Mercury.

Including an aria sung as popcorn is stuffed down the gullet, Parke’s part-prankish approach is an enlivening accompaniment to the percolating drama, one he gives truthfulness to that celebrates the opera’s near 400-year existence and a highly recommended one to head off to.

The Coronation of Poppea
Lyric Opera of Melbourne
Chapel off Chapel
Until 22nd July


Production Photos: Sarah Walker